Tracy Wilson in Scotland, part II

and some thoughts on good garden design in exposed situations

5th January, 2007

Scotland has of course a lot more to offer than just Christmas Trees and Conifers and in fact it has some of the nicest gardens that youíll find anywhere. Bearing in mind how coastal the country is, itís fairly bleak. Whilst the eastern half of Scotland is the most populated side of Scotland, the downside is the north-easterly winds. The western half of Scotland is far less populated, basically because itís much wetter as it gets all the prevailing winds coming in to that side.So thatís where you tend to get the big shooting and hunting estates and far fewer of what I consider Ďhomelyí places (for want of a better description).

If you drive south into central Scotland, around Edinburgh and Glasgow, you will find some of the most famous gardens that there are. One of them is Inverewe, which is an absolutely beautiful garden. One would be hard put to pick a time of year (apart from when itís two or three foot deep in snow) to go to Inverewe: you could be forgiven for thinking it wasn't the west of Scotland but in the south-west of England because it grows a lot of plants there that require that little bit more nurturing in the slightly more tender climate. Because it tends to be slightly warmer and wetter, they can get a way with it. Itís that combination of moisture along with the exposure which allows plants to survive because the moisture is being almost Ďturbo-injectedí back into the plants again, rather than being sucked out. I think that probably the biggest difference that we would notice between the south of England and Scotland is the fact that in the south it is drier Ė our plants in coastal sites are being desiccated much more quickly, whereas in Scotland, because they have a higher rainfall, the plants have a much greater resource of moisture to pull up. So theyíre actually better able to defend themselves against the desiccation Ė which is, at the end of the day, is all that windburn is,the situation where desiccation by the wind is sucking out moisture faster than the roots can replace it. Scotland is a country full of surprises from that point of view. Another famous garden which is very beautiful, right on the west coast, just this side of Stranraer (which, I think, the Scottish would forgive me for saying is not the most beautiful town in the world!) is Logan Gardens. They are gorgeous: famous botanical gardens which grow a lot of the species that you would expect to see in south-west England Ė beautiful Rhododendrons, Magnolias, Camellias, Embothryums, Crinodendrons Ė a lot of the traditional spring things that you would particularly consider in Cornwall. This is a garden that has created its own shelter and in some ways that makes it very reminiscent of Tresco. Without its windbreaks, Tresco would be nothing. A lot of the big gardens in Scotland would be exactly the same: were it not for their great Conifer belts and deciduous tree breaks, the gardens would be suffering a lot more than they are.

I think the biggest lesson probably that most people with an exposed garden can take back from any of the big gardens is that youíve got to get your windbreaks in first. I did a bit of garden design for a wealthy gentleman in east Cornwall. He had bought a property and it had to have a lot of work done. Before the builders had even moved in, heíd started work on the garden! He knew that whilst a decorator can come in and paint a room and itís finished in a day, how long does it take to create a garden? You canít Ďbuyí time all the time, so itís important that you do think about it Ė ĎWell, fine, I actually I want to create a house and a garden hereí Ė do some of the garden first! Itís amazing how long you can live out of a suitcase, but you canít replace lost time, particularly with windbreaks and hedges.

Grow anything that can give your garden shelter. Unfortunately coastal gardens are always going to be that compromise between fantastic views and shelter from the wind. If you can see the sea, it can see you and itíll find you! So you have to have a balance, decide which is important for you. Most of the big coastal gardens are divided up into Ďroomsí because that way you have the best of both worlds. You create pockets of shelter, rooms to grow the plants which enjoy the mild climate but don't want to be actually scoured by the salt. Round the corner, on the other side of the hedge you have a beautiful open vista which you can go and enjoy on a nice sunny day, or if youíre like me and enjoy standing on the edge of a cliff in a howling gale pretending to be out of ĎTitanicí, then you can do that as well. You then know that the things that you want to grow in your garden that need shelter have still got it. I suppose in all honesty thatís probably what I would say is the biggest maxim about gardening in a coastal situation Ė itís balance, picking the balance between what you want from the garden and what the seaís prepared to let you have. And itís a far more interesting design: if you could walk out of your back door and you could see all your garden without taking another step Ė how boring that would be. Thereíd be no need to take a walk round your garden! Youíve got to put in barriers, even if itís just putting a wigwam of Runner Beans so that you canít see everything in the garden in one go. It means youíve got a reason to go for a walk down the garden. You can create that effect in the smallest of gardens. Remember! You donít have to be able to see it all in one go!

Along with the shelter and the windbreak, a lot of the gardens Ė certainly the ones Iíve seen up in Scotland Ė and certainly the more beautiful and world-renowned gardens that Iíve been to Ė operate on the same principle: surprise - surprise shelter, change of scene, change of mood. By walking round the corner you can go into a completely different garden within the matter of a few paces. You donít have to live in the middle of Kent or Essex with a perfectly sheltered English country garden to achieve that. Iíve got a relatively tiny garden: itís the width of my little house and itís about 20 paces long, and itís lovely. But I canít see all my garden, even from my bedroom window upstairs, because there are big things in the way. So, Iíve got to go for a walk down my garden every day to see whatís happening. Thatís what you need to be able to create. You create the shelter, you create the interest, you create the surprise. Thereís nothing more exciting, nothing more enchanting than walking down the garden and seeing your first Snowdrop poking out of the ground or that first Primrose (which in some cases came out quite a long time before Christmas). But itís seeing that first little flower just poking its nose out of the ground Ė thatís almost the essence of gardening. What gives you the most pleasure out of your garden? For me, itís the continual surprise that Nature provides for me. You never actually know whatís going to be out in your garden when you wake up everyday.


© 2006 Tracy Wilson